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The Peninsular War


The Spanish Context


Just as developments in late 1811 proved disappointing for the allies, so events elsewhere in Spain offered limited cause of celebration. In February, a bold expedition was launched to relieve the siege of Cadiz, which the French had begun in 1810. The siege could never have succeeded as a blockade, since the city could be kept supplied form the sea. Meanwhile, the size of the garrison had increased until it outnumbered the besiegers.

A large Anglo-Spanish force under General Thomas Graham and General Manuel La Pena was dispatched to attack the French forces besieging the city in their rear. Pena was placed in overall command, but lacked boldness and courage. Rather than striking inland to take the French from behind, he chose a coastal road which would have simply taken the force straight back to Cadiz, having achieved nothing. The French however, sprang a trap at the Battle of Barrosa on 5th March.


The French plan was to drive the Anglo-Spanish army into the sea by attacking them in the flank. However, stubborn resistance from the British contingent thwarted this, with a single battalion at one stage holding off an entire French division. The British did almost all of the fighting. Pena refused to send any Spanish soldiers to assist the British, despite having plenty of men to spare, and knowing that his troops were not at any risk from the French forces in the area. Pena even refused to pursue the French in the wake of the hard won British victory, allowing Marshal Victor to re-establish the partial blockade of the city.

Sir Thomas Graham



In the autumn, Napoleon made a peculiar strategic decision, ordering Suchet to invade Valencia, despite withdrawing around 25,000 men from Spain to form part of his Grande Armee which would participate in his Russian campaign. Although Valencia was eventually subdued by early 1812, it simply meant that the French were stretched even more thinly across the country. Nonetheless, the Valencian campaign was disastrous for the Spanish who lose half of their 40,000 strong army to Suchet’s force of just 26,000 men.

The fact therefore remained, that if anyone enjoyed a balance of power in the Iberian Peninsula, it was probably the French.


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Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)

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